In the 1860s, it was viewed as groundbreaking to form an all-black regiment and send them into battle. The mere existence of such a regiment meant threats of bondage and execution for soldiers and officers. This is also one of the things that made them heroes.

It’s not that black men had never fought in the country’s previous wars — they did. Nearly every military conflict before the Civil War had black men fighting. However, by all historical accounts, there had never been an all-black infantry regiment in the country’s history until the Civil War. The 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment was the first black regiment in the country’s history, and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment was the second. Popularized by the 1989 film Glory, the 54th is perhaps the most famous.

The regiment was authorized by the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863. The unit began its recruitment efforts the following month. Frederick Douglass vigorously supported the regiment; his two sons, Charles and Lewis, were among the first to enlist. Recruitment efforts were extremely popular, with more than 1,000 volunteering. The surplus of volunteers forced the formation of the 55th Massachusetts. About 25% of the volunteers came from slave states.

At the request of Massachusetts Gov. John Andrew, who was largely responsible for the formation of the 54th, Robert Gould Shaw was offered the regiment’s colonelcy and became its commanding officer. The regiment went to train at Camp Meigs, just outside of Boston in Readville, Massachusetts. Shaw was a disciplinarian with his soldiers, and the 54th became one of the “best drilled and trained regiments of the U.S. Army.” Shaw was exceptionally proud of his men and eager to prove all the naysayers wrong. In a letter to his father, Shaw penned, “The skeptics need only come out here now to be converted.”

During the regiment’s training, the Confederate States of America announced that any black Union soldier who was captured during combat would be sold into slavery. Additionally, it was announced that any white officer in command of black troops would be captured and summarily put to death. These intimidation efforts had minimal impact on the troops and officers, and on May 28, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts gathered in Boston Common and ceremoniously paraded in the streets of Boston before shipping out to Hilton Head.

Initially, the 54th was supposed to be used strictly for manual labor and raids. The regiment was forced to lead a violent raid on the town of Darien, Georgia. This caused Shaw to protest and write to his affluent father, the governor of Massachusetts, and Union Gen. George Strong. This resulted in the guarantee that the 54th would see combat. On July 16, 1863, at the Battle of Grimball’s Landing in James Island, South Carolina, the group saw its first action against Confederate troops as part of the campaign known as Operations Against the Defenses of Charleston. After this experience, Shaw volunteered the 54th to lead the assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina.

Fort Wagner would be a loss for the 54th regiment. It would also result in Shaw’s death. The courage and bravery of the 54th’s charge on Fort Wagner became one of the war’s most heralded moments. It was honored in literature through such avenues as poems, monuments, and other artwork.

Shaw and his 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment became a beacon of hope for racial equality in the nation. Their courage and sacrifice were never forgotten, giving rise to one of the many moments in U.S. history that helped create positive change.